Signs

A mix of parents and students in front of the Stillwater Public Schools building hold signs protesting distance learning and the shutdown of sports during the Sept. 17 school board meeting.

A group of Stillwater parents has filed a lawsuit to force Stillwater Public Schools to end distance learning for students who enrolled for traditional, face-to-face instruction.

The filing came on Monday, the same day Stillwater students returned to the classroom on an alternating or A/B schedule.

It asks the court to order SPS to reopen all facilities and provide students with traditional access.

The district had already announced it will continue the A/B schedule at least through Oct. 24, unless new infections rise in the county, returning it to alert level Red and distance learning.

If the county is at a lower alert level after Oct. 24, the plan is to return to traditional instruction.

Parents and students gathered at the district’s administration building multiple times in September to speak at School Board meetings and to protest distance learning and the uncertainty surrounding sports and extracurricular activities.

Following the protests, Superintendent Marc Moore spent six hours meeting with students and parents or guardians, SPS Communications Coordinator Barry Fuxa said.

Moore said the value of in-person instruction was the overriding theme of those interactions.

“We want that as well,” he said. “We just want to do it in a safe manner.”

Plaintiffs’ attorney Robert Gifford told the News Press getting kids back in school is the goal of the lawsuit.

He acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic has made things difficult and called Stillwater’s A/B schedule a step in the right direction. But he said it seems like Stillwater and some other districts took a “wait and see approach” and have had trouble catching up.

“Districts around the state are operating at different speeds and different gears,” Gifford said. “...I don’t envy the schools.”

But it’s hard when children in different towns are getting different types of education. Some parents have lost faith and felt desperate enough to take legal action, he said. The lawsuit is a way to push the district.

It’s possible that the district could make adjustments that satisfy the parents, Gifford said.

Families have been stressed as they struggled to meet competing demands. Parents who had the resources made other arrangements for their children but not all families had those same options.

“It’s a really strange time,” Gifford said. “Some parents don’t have an alternative and can’t afford a private tutor or private school … We have to do something better than they’ve been doing before.”

The petition was filed in Payne County District Court by Tulsa law firm Sullivent & Fontanez on behalf of Stillwater parents Andrea Wilson, Bethany Beeby, Elizabeth Hurlbutt, Dawndra Berkenbile, Crystal Ward and Susan Marshall.

The suit names the school district, Moore and all members of the Stillwater Board of Education except Camille DeYong, along with a number of unnamed defendants, identified only as John Does 1-10.

The unidentified defendants could be others who played a role in the district’s decision, including administrators and health officials, Gifford said.

He said school board president Mitsi Andrews, who last week announced her intention to resign, will be removed from the list of defendants once her resignation is official and her replacement will be named instead.

Although Moore told the News Press the school district had not been served as of early Monday evening, the district issued a statement in response to the filing.

“Throughout Oklahoma and the nation, parents are genuinely concerned for the education of their children when not receiving instruction through a traditional in-school environment. Every district leader, every board member and every parent involved in these conversations faces an incredible challenge in balancing student academic, social, emotional, and physical well-being during this pandemic. It is disappointing that the pandemic has led to such a situation. Stillwater Public Schools and its Board desire a safe return to full-time in-person instruction, and will continue to thoughtfully consider the important issues raised by these parents’ claims.”

Although the plaintiffs are not seeking monetary damages, the filing does ask the defendants to pay the plaintiffs’ attorney’s fees, costs of litigation and other damages as allowed by law, in addition to any other relief the court deems proper.

Twitter: @mcharlesNP

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